Inside a large glass box, dozens of women sat haphazardly around small tables cramped with tubes and palettes of makeup. I watched on, my eyes peering through the curtainless windows as each woman went through her routine for the night. A line of contour here, a scattering of blush there. A yellow dress draped atop a pink plastic chair, and row after row of thick black fringes. It was like a zoo; a glass cage filled with female bodies, each of them there for the viewing of any stranger who happened to pass. Technically, it was a ‘beauty room’. A space where they could be watched – without a shred of privacy – by the hundreds of male ‘sex tourists’ who surrounded me. But in reality, I knew what these women truly were to the men who viewed them. Entertainment … a body without a soul.
It was a Saturday night and I was standing inside one of the most infamous red-light districts in South East Asia, a place proudly marketed as “the world’s largest adult playground”. It was a three-level, U-shaped plaza, filled with hordes of women and girls, some of whom were as young as 13, presented solely for the sexual gratification of men. I shuddered and turned my eyes toward the closed doors of a club just beyond where I stood; a place where, only weeks earlier, 22 girls had been rescued from exploitation by an anti-human trafficking organisation. Nineteen of those girls were underage.
Yet, the vast majority of people would never know this … in fact, it seemed as though no one cared. All around me, dozens of other bars continued on as normal, their walls thumping with loud pop and electronic music, as young women – even some with swollen pregnant bellies – stood by the doorway with numbers pinned to their bras or crop tops. All afternoon and night, these places carried on as normal, serving women and girls to the highest bidder – sometimes for as little as a packet of fries. All along the footpaths, and on every level of the plaza, men sat around laughing and grinning; some with a beer in one hand and a teen in the other.
In my head, I remembered the words of one of the anti-trafficking workers who I’d spoken to earlier that day. “Some of the girls we’ve met, particularly in smaller karaoke bars, have been sold for as little as $2.”
I wanted to vomit.
How many other girls are suffering right now, waiting for someone to offer them a hand to escape to a safer life? I wondered. How many girls are hiding their fear behind fake smiles, counting the seconds until this client leaves, and the next arrives?
I’d only been in Thailand for a few days, and my entire world view had shifted so vastly in that time. I’d known when I’d boarded the plane with a small group of strangers, the 10 of us heading to South East Asia to learn more about human trafficking with a well-known organisation, that I’d be forced way outside my comfort zone. I’d been prepared to have my heart cracked open as I spent time in red-light districts and rescue homes where girls had been set free and given the tools to thrive. But this place, my god. This place was like nothing I’d ever experienced.
All around us, women seemed to be suffering. Mothers sat on filthy streets with their children between their legs as they begged for money. Pregnant girls and ‘Lady Boys’ stood in sky-high heels, trying to convince men to step inside the pubs with them – where in many cases, they’d then be disrespected, degraded, and exploited – sometimes, for the cost of a small meal. And now, as I was seeing, women were even crammed into glass ‘viewing’ rooms as they did their makeup. It was a visual assault in every single way but what affected me the most was the overwhelming burden of heaviness and depression in the air. The toxic atmosphere was so thick that it was tangible.
Beside me, my teammate Jana – a tall woman with short blonde hair – tilted her gaze towards a bar just ahead of us. “Look over there,” she said, gesturing to a small group of women in bikinis. They sat slumped on either side of a doorway, their tiny bodies perched atop stools that were half their size. As we approached, the girls barely moved, but as a group of guys came alongside us they suddenly straightened up, forced a grin, and began giggling and performing. The moment we passed, their eyes once again glazed over, smiles fading as they hunched into a slumped position. This was a scene repeated over and over as we passed each bar. Each time, their body language screamed the same sentence: “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want this”.
I looked around at all the men in the building and wondered if they saw it too. Can’t they see what’s going on inside these young women’s eyes? Do they not see the same things we do? Or do they just not care?
As we made our way outside the plaza, I felt the gentle brushing of a hand against my arm. It was so soft, I wasn’t sure it was real, but then I turned and lifted my gaze, staring straight into the dark brown eyes of a young woman. Dressed in a white polo top and a pleated miniskirt, she stood outside a bar, a security guard positioned just behind her small frame.
I was momentarily stunned, confused by the way that she had grabbed my forearm. It wasn’t the grasping, flirtatious gesture I’d seen from many of the young women in this building; the ones who tried to convince you to come inside. It wasn’t forceful or coercive. Yet, I could feel in her grip that something wasn’t right.
Again, I looked into her face, and instantly I saw it. From her tight smile, to the wide expanse of her eyes, it was clear. I knew that look. It was thinly-veiled fear.
For a few seconds we stood there, both surrounded by the awful thumping of electronic music and drunken laughter as she held my arm. I looked deeply into her eyes, meeting the small smile she offered with one of my own.
There are few times I’ve ever felt as helpless as I did in that moment … because there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could say. There was just the touch of our hands; the small smiles between us as I tried to let her know, I see you. I hear you.
And then, I had to leave.
As our group walked in a tight huddle along dark streets toward the humble building we were staying in, I couldn’t stop thinking of her. On the rooftop, we stood with our team leader, each of us too overwhelmed by the darkness of the place we’d just passed through to even speak.
To this day I’ve never forgotten that young woman. Although there’s no way of knowing what her story was, or why she reached out to me that night, I know that everything I have done since this day has been in honour of women like her. Those who feel unseen, trapped, and unable to escape.
Whatever I saw in the next few days, no matter what I heard or witnessed, I made a serious commitment: Don’t look away, I told myself. Lean into the pain. Remember, nothing changes unless we choose to confront that which we wish to change.
There were many stories that I learned of, throughout my time in SE Asia, that were hard to shake – but there is one in particular that I’ve never forgotten.
At the time, we were in a more remote part of Thailand where a number of prevention and rehabilitation homes had been created for survivors (or those who were at high risk of being exploited), and I met with dozens of teenage girls who had once been in the industry. There was a young woman who had been studying and working towards one day opening her own hair salon and while in the area I had booked in with her for a wash and style. With a round face and a thick button-nose, she was quiet and shy, often smiling softly as other girls in the salon laughed and joked with us. I’d been warned prior to my booking that she wouldn’t be able to provide the massage part of the treatment and to please ensure I didn’t take any photographs. As I later discovered, this young woman had encountered horrendous mental abuse while in the sex trade and was often laughed at and tormented by the Mamasan (the female manager of the brothel/club) about how ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ she was. Her days were spent being degraded by men, and then laughed at by the managers and bar girls, who would point her way while oinking like a pig.
I looked into the gentle eyes of this lovely, timid woman and wanted to cry. The cruelty. The trauma. Was it any wonder so many girls felt trapped and unable to leave? What did they have to go to? What self-worth or confidence did they have?
There were many stories like this; thousands of young girls with different names but near-identical experiences. What astounded me most, however, was not only their ability to survive, but to find a way to begin thriving.
How are these girls not rocking in a corner, unable to function or speak? I wondered.
Only recently I’d learned of two 13-year-old girls who had been tricked into leaving their village for a job in a restaurant, only to be kidnapped and raped so violently that they were returned, rather than sold. That story, in particular, broke me. I couldn’t get my head around how so many of these women – many of whom were only 15 and had already been out of the sex industry for several years – had been able to find peace, joy, and renewed confidence. I watched them giggling and joking as they rode bicycles with our group through a park, making fun of us as we attempted to speak basic phrases in Thai. I watched the way that they played – just like little girls should – and the courage that they showed as they took charge of their lives.
Had their lived experiences been wiped away? No. Did they still live with anxiety or other mental health challenges due to the abuse they had experienced? Yes. But at the same time, they were so full of hope; that’s what astounded me most. They had chosen not to allow their trauma to become a life sentence.
Over the fortnight that I was there, I was blown away by how much I witnessed and experienced. I scrubbed, painted, and renovated a two-storey building for a young woman who was opening her own hair salon. I dug trenches and played soccer with kids at a local prevention home, where I also met a young woman I’d been sponsoring for many years. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to learn from these young girls, as they shared their culture, taught us how to cook traditional Thai recipes, and demonstrated every day just how strong the human spirit really is.
Hope and gratitude, in particular, seemed to be a staple within Thailand and it astounded and moved me profoundly. One afternoon, I walked to a small stall in a country market, and saw a Thai woman literally dance with joy as she collected money for the goods she’d just sold. “Lucky money, lucky money!” she grinned, fingers clutched around the colourful notes as she waved them in the air, touching them to each of the items that hung on the shelves. Things that we took for granted were appreciated and honoured; minute moments in time that were acknowledged for their beauty and magic. Just like sunshine after a storm, the people of this country had learned that light could always exist within darkness. They understood that nothing in life was to be taken for granted and it was never too late to try again.
“Hey, has anyone seen Changers?”
On a small, darkened street, I turned and squinted against the blackness. All around me, my teammates shrugged and glanced around, each of us growing increasingly nervous. One of us was missing; a young woman by the name of Stacey – or ‘Changers’, as we affectionately called her. As the most mischievous girl in our group she was hard to miss; which is why we were now worried. Changers was clearly not with us.
“Shit, you don’t think she got left behind, do you?” asked Jen, her blonde hair sticking to the edge of her neck from the humid night air.
“I don’t know. She was with us at the last place, yeah?” replied Jana.
“I saw her in the markets for a while … but then I went into a different stall,” added another.
“Shit. She got left behind, didn’t she?”
I stared out into the darkness, feeling worried. It was around 7pm, and we’d just returned to our accommodation after a final night of exploring the local markets. None of us had any way to contact our missing teammate, and worst of all, I was pretty sure she didn’t even know the address of where we were staying.
Just as we began to descend into panic, the bright lights of a Tuk Tuk came rumbling toward us, pulling to a stop just outside the front door of the four-level, slightly run-down complex we were staying in. Then, with a smile and wave, out stepped Changers.
“What the hell, Stacey?”
“Where’ve you been!?”
“How did you get home?”
We all gathered around, waiting for her to speak or explode into anger at having been left behind in a small rural town. After all, I certainly would have, if my team didn’t realise I was missing!
Instead, Changers shrugged casually, smiling back at her driver who was now speeding off into the night.
“How did you know where to go?” I asked.
“Oh that’s easy,” she smiled. “I just walked up to a Tuk Tuk driver and asked if he knew where I lived, and he said, ‘Yep!’ and brought me here.”
We stared, mouths agape. “Are you serious?! Here, in the north of Thailand? You just asked a random stranger if he knew where you lived?”
She shrugged, unfazed. “Well, yeah. He knew most of us were white, and there was only one place a large group of white tourists would be staying!” she laughed.
“Oh my God, only you, Changers!”
We stood around shaking our heads, bursting into laughter as the ten of us walked inside.
Little moments of joy like these were so important, amid what was a very heavy trip. Only two weeks ago we had all been strangers, yet in the space of 14 days, we’d formed a bond that was hard to articulate. Each of us had grown to know each other’s truest fears and desires; the things that moved and shaped us. Secrets – some embarrassing, others hilarious – that we’d never told anyone. And above all, we understood the importance of coming together as a collective to make change.
There are a lot of differing opinions about human trafficking awareness trips (such as the one in which we took part); judgments about whether these trips are helpful to the girls involved, or just an opportunity for white people to virtue signal about how woke or educated they are.
For me, I know what I saw and experienced during our time overseas and how genuine each person was in their passion to help stop sexual exploitation. I know of the personal and financial cost that we invested to be there. It wasn’t a fun, relaxing, two week holiday by the ocean, with coconuts and cocktails in hand. It was a fortnight of exposing ourselves to some of the most evil things that occur within our world, so that we could take what we’d learned and return home with the knowledge to create change.
It was a time of sacrificing our own comfort, in order to hear and remember the stories of those who’d experienced unthinkable pain. It was an opportunity to empower others to join with us in the fight to provide a better future for women and girls. It was all of that and so much more.
Little did I know that – for me – it was also the start of what was to become 18 months of personal investigation into many of these horrors within my very own city …
This is an edited extract from the best-selling ‘thriller memoir’, The Stories We Carry, by award-winning human trafficking ambassador, resilience speaker and book coach Jas Rawlinson. Grab a copy here or book Jas to speak at your event here. You can also find her on Instagram @jas_rawlinson.